The more Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to break up NATO, the stronger it becomes.
It’s not the first time that President Joe Biden has taken decisive action to heal rifts in the coalition over the Ukraine war. He announced on Wednesday that he would send 31 advanced U.S. tanks to Kyiv’s army, prompting a reluctant Germany to drop its resistance to sending its own tanks and potentially launching similar operations across Europe.
This represents a major symbolic, political and military victory for Ukraine. It hopes its so-called new “iron fist” will break through Russia’s fortified defenses in the east, push Russia’s land bridge toward annexed Crimea to the south and stave off Russia’s feared spring offensive.
Biden’s statesmanship closed the most public and damaging Western rift in war to date. The U.S. has previously said its Abrams tanks are too complex and expensive to maintain for the Ukrainian war and are not suitable for the terrain. But Biden changed his mind and let Germany get cover, underscoring the view in Washington that a united West against Putin is crucial to saving Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin’s main goals outside of the battlefield are to sow division among Western allies and to disrupt or end the flow of arms on which Ukraine’s survival as an independent state depends.
His defeat, despite Russia’s overt threats aimed at scaring European nations into hesitation over tank transfers, also came after a mild winter stripped away another leg of Russia’s strategy — starving Europeans in cold weather to import natural gas , hoping they will put pressure on their country’s leaders to stop supporting Ukraine.
“Putin expects Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday. “He predicted that our support for Ukraine would disintegrate over time. He was wrong … he was wrong from the beginning, and he has always been wrong. We are one.”
As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion looms, Biden and the West are in a remarkable position that few strategists thought possible a year ago.
— NATO is stronger and more unified than it has been in years. This is a strategic disaster for Russia. The alliance’s sense of drift in the early 2000s has been driven away by reminders of the group’s founding purpose: a common defense against Moscow aggression. Putin’s actions will ensure that the lessons of nurturing this alliance will last for decades.
— Biden has pinned his legacy on a major land war in Europe, in which the United States has waged an effective proxy war with nuclear rival Russia. The battle — in some ways the final battle of the Cold War — was a test of wills between an American president and a Kremlin strongman deeply shaped by the U.S.-Soviet standoff. Biden is leading the most significant foreign policy venture since at least the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its success is vital to America’s and his own credibility. The scale of the mission is likely to overshadow much of his presidency — including the current investigation into misplaced classified documents — in world history.
— Biden has restored the United States to a strong global leadership, reinvigorated its vital transatlantic alliances, and directed allies to support the effort through successful and intensive diplomacy. So far, the president’s balancing act — between delivering more powerful weapons to Ukraine and avoiding an escalation of tensions with Putin that could lead to a conflict with the West or even Moscow’s use of smaller tactical nuclear weapons — is maintaining balance. The coming second year of the war in Ukraine and the deep involvement of NATO will test this equation like never before.
— The most noteworthy aspect of the evolving relationship between the West and Ukraine is that one of Putin’s supposed motivations for waging war is to prevent the possibility of ex-Soviet countries joining NATO, which would be a greater disgrace to Moscow than joining Poland , Romania and Slovakia and other countries that were once on the territory of the Warsaw Pact. But now, Ukraine’s war effort is armed and financed by the West, almost as if it were a de facto NATO country with access to some of the alliance’s most advanced weapons systems.
The West’s rationale for such support is also evolving. The main goal at one time was for an unarmed country to repel unprovoked invasions so that its people could freely choose their political system and sovereignty. Coalition leaders now appear to view Ukraine as an important strategic bulwark.
“If President Putin wins, it’s a tragedy for Ukrainians and a danger for us,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Kate Bolduin on Wednesday. He believes that authoritarian states cannot be allowed to exert their will and profit through threats. “It is in our security interest to support Ukrainians,” he said.
Just because he keeps failing, it’s unlikely that Putin will stop trying to split the Western Union. Hostility and vindictiveness towards the United States and its allies underpinned his more than two decades in power. Restricting arms supplies to Ukraine and stoking Western fatigue with war remains crucial to his hopes of victory or avoiding decisive defeat.
Moscow reacted violently to the decision on the tanks, calling them extremely dangerous, adding that it took the already bloody conflict to a new level.
Still seeking to avoid any escalation that could lead to direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces, Biden stressed that the new tanks pose no offensive threat to Russia — as long as Putin withdraws troops from Ukraine. Critics of the war and the massive flow of Western weapons will grow concerned that the West may end up only exacerbating the bloody standoff, resulting in the senseless massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian troops, as well as Ukrainian civilians. With both Moscow and Kyiv appearing to believe they can still win the war, there is hardly any chance of a diplomatic push for a ceasefire or peace.
However, Western military strategists have warned that Moscow is preparing for a new spring offensive after an already bloody onslaught.
“It is dangerous to underestimate Russia,” Stoltenberg said in a speech in Oslo on Wednesday, noting that Moscow had mobilized an additional 200,000 troops and was willing to take huge risks and suffer staggering losses.
Ukraine will now be under pressure to show that it can make significant gains on the battlefield by using these new tanks in properly planned joint military operations, maximizing their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. While the German tank, dubbed the Leopard 2, could arrive within weeks, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told CNN it would be “many months” before the Abrams tanks arrive, and the tanks are still on the way. It is necessary to purchase manufacturers from the United States and arrive.
Still, the slew of diplomatic and military ramifications of Biden’s willingness to send the tanks sends an important message to Moscow.
“They’re even more important as symbols of American and European commitment,” Wesley Clark, a retired general and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Ukraine requested at least 300 tanks. While it’s unclear how many it will receive in the new Allied shipment, the total is likely to be around 100 pieces. No doubt it hopes that once opened, the spigot of new weapons will continue to flow. This is what happens consistently in war.
When the invasion last February, the US and its allies were wary of providing even basic weapons. But as the brutal war unfolded, and Ukraine’s resistance galvanized the world, the barriers to more power aid fell away. Kyiv is now getting weapons, ammunition, drones, Javelin anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, Patriot anti-missile missiles, and some of the most advanced tanks in the US and allied forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in Washington on Christmas Eve that his country’s needs were so great that he would never stop demanding more weapons.
Providing fighter jets — his administration’s most cherished demand — has so far been a red line that Biden has been reluctant to cross. This is also one of the reasons for the split of the alliance before.
But the pattern of this war is that what Ukraine asks for, it ends up getting, even if the scale of its demands for particular equipment isn’t always met.